More than 100 cases of forced marriage are currently under investigation in Australia, and the youngest victims are just six-years-old.
New data obtained by Seven News under Freedom of Information laws reveals that Australian Federal Police have investigated 171 cases of forced child marriage in the last year.
Yet experts and anti-slavery campaigners say there are far more cases that go undetected, largely because children are too scared to reach out to authorities for help.
“They often express how dangerous it could be in their community or within their family if they attempt to leave,” explained UNSW’s Youth Law Australia (YLA) director Matthew Keeley.
A previous report, End Child Marriage Australia, published by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (now named Youth Law Australia) identified cases of forced child marriage in every State and Territory in Australia.
But missing from the recently unearthed Federal Police data are the unknown numbers of children born in Australia who are taken overseas and forced into child marriage, never to return.
Mr Keeley said YLA has helped children who are on the brink of being moved off shore and may never come back.
In some cases, as a last resort, the organisation has had to advise children in this position to physically yell and scream at the airport to attract the attention of authorities.
In one case, a girl attempted suicide after her parents planned for her to wed an older relative abroad, believing it would “provide her a husband to protect her, and to preserve familial ties.”
Another girl approached an Australian embassy abroad to request a new passport after her extended family confiscated hers. Yet when she explained that she had been taken abroad for a forced marriage, consular officers said she needed to get consent of both parents to obtain a new passport.
The girl was only able to return safely to her mother back in Australia once a specialist legal center became involved.
In response to the findings, NSW Minister for Family and Community Services and the Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Pru Goward said it is “deeply disturbing to think of little girls, pre-puberty, being considered for marriage and for people to be organising that marriage.”
“Every child deserves a childhood. The law is clear. Our culture is clear. Children must be protected,” she added.